Magna Carta Manifesto

Liberties and Commons for All

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Peter Linebaugh, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, 376 pp.

Reviewed by Elsa Noterman

Given the burgeoning literature on the struggle to preserve “the commons” – or shared, collectively managed resources – in the face of neoliberal enclosure, Peter Linebaugh’s book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, offers an important historical context in which to understand the commons as a concept and a set of lived practices. Concerned with how the enclosure of the commons around the world has “gone hand in hand” with the elimination of civil liberties, in Manifesto Linebaugh offers a legal and social history of the relationship between political and economic rights as embodied within everyday resistances of commoners over the centuries, and laws rooted in the eleventh century English Charters of Liberties: the Magna Carta and the Forest Charter. Linebaugh traces how certain legal tenets – such as principles associated with the Magna Carta like habeas corpus, trial by jury, due process, and the prohibition of torture – have become inscribed within laws around the world through precedent, interpretation, everyday praxis and popular representations, while others (like the subsistence rights, or rights of the commons, asserted in the Forest Charter) have been largely ignored. The book is thus also an attempt to think about law within a context of global history – how certain laws and legal practices circulate across space and over time.

In considering resurgent struggles around the commons in recent history – from opposition to forest reserve enclosures in Vietnam to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico to the seizure of the Chevron Oil terminal in Nigeria – Linebaugh draws a connection between current resistance to neoliberal enclosures and the efforts to defend the commons and civil rights in the Charters of Liberties in eleventh century England. He grounds the importance of these charters, especially the Magna Carta – which was forged on a field at Runnymede between King John and rebelling barons – in their sustained influence on Western and international law, and the continued practices of sharing common resources that they represented and protected. In Manifesto, Linebaugh thus brings together legal and social histories “from below,” offering a broad history of the development and circulation of the charters of liberties that illuminates the relationship between civil and economic rights.

In his ambitious undertaking, Linebaugh uses four types of “interpretation,” including: documentary (examining the Charter of 1215 and subsequent revisions), legal (exploring evolving interpretations of legal principles derived from the charters – particularly in U.S. law), cultural (observing representations of the Magna Carta and related themes in murals, music, poetry, and plays), and finally, constitutional (assessing the Magna Carta’s character both as a treaty marking the end of a rebellion and as the basis of a renewed right of resistance). Through this multi-interpretive approach Linebaugh covers close to eight hundred years of history and follows the principles of the charters as they migrated with Britain’s 19th century imperial ambitions in India and the Americas, and were picked up by multiple independence and human rights movements in the 20th century. While at times, the connections Linebaugh draws between the charters and more contemporary events are tenuous, many of the associations he makes are unexpected and enlightening, reflecting the complex and variable nature of history. For example, he relates the establishment of the jury system in the Magna Carta, which was central to the governance of medieval commons, to the 20th century struggle of women in the U.S. – many of whom were involved in the informal management of neighborhood commons – to serve as jurors in the courts of law.

From a pedagogical perspective, while Linebaugh’s style might be initially confusing or disruptive to readers who expect a more linear, chronological approach to history, it may also provoke students to think about doing history differently. The book is distinct not only in the variety of interpretations and sources it draws on (from music to an analysis of Supreme Court cases), but it is also an effort to “read” ancient legal documents in relation to both history and contemporary issues. In doing so, as reflected in the title, it also has an explicitly political bent. As a historian, Linebaugh seeks to revive the lost history of the commons as a basis for future organizing. He emphasizes techniques of fieldwork involved in social history – from folklore, philology, oral history, and observation – that promotes a “history from below,” inclusive of those often left out of written history (272). The book thus offers opportunities to talk with students about possible alternative ways to think about and write history, including the role of politics and existence of multiple sources.  Additionally, asserting that one goal of the book is to “obtain new readers for old texts,” Linebaugh also helpfully includes a translation of the Magna Carta and the Forest Charter in the appendix of the book, encouraging readers to analyze the primary texts themselves (313).

In highlighting these historic texts, the book also provides an opportunity to consider the idea of a global legal history. Linebaugh asks if law is “part of the ideological superstructure and exclusive to particular historical epochs,” or if there are “immutable principles of law discovered through history and thenceforth forever valid” (272). While he does not provide a clear answer to this question, he gives the example of the jus cogens, or “compelling law,” of the international community, which include prohibitions of genocide, torture and slavery. Acknowledging that these principles are at times (such as during the “war on terror”) silenced or disregarded, Linebaugh argues that it is precisely at these times that people around the world reassert their legal rights, which are often based in a globalized history. Thus, in the contemporary context of global enclosures that reduce sources of local livelihoods and diminish civil liberties, Linebaugh’s book not only highlights the importance of these legal principles, but also reunites them with historically-based rights to subsistence. In doing so, Linebaugh underlines the need for what he calls a “planetary commons,” or a global right to resist economic, social and political violence.

In unearthing the complex history of the Charters of Liberties and the historic connection between economic and civil rights, in Manifesto Linebaugh seeks to not only situate the socio-legal history of the commons, but also to affirm contemporary struggles around the commons. Drawing on multiple interpretations and histories from below, he engages with, rather than smooths over, the complexity of history. While at times this makes the text somewhat convoluted, it is nonetheless, an important endeavor in both content and form, encouraging us to think differently about the commons, law and global history.

Syllabus Based on this Book

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